The expansion of Australia’s higher education system in the past 50 years has created a sector that has delivered research excellence on the world stage, demonstrated leadership in international education and responded productively to the challenge in the Bradley reforms to support more Australian students from all walks of life to achieve a university degree. While the sector has impressively navigated the challenges of structural reform, international competition and doing more with less – its collective capacity to continue to deliver globally competitive research and innovation and contribute to the national skills and productivity agenda will require a step change in the level of debate on building Australia’s future university workforce.

To date such debates have primarily focussed on the demographics of the ageing workforce or headline industrial issues, and have usually been held in the context of the immediate impact of the ‘growing pains’ of an expanding system on the current university workforce.  These and many other issues are material and important to both institutions and individuals, however planning needs to occur outside the heat of polarising ‘bargaining’ environments on how Australia can grow a future university workforce to meet the challenges of a fiercely competitive global research and education system.

As foreshadowed by the Australian Government’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, the world’s economic ‘centre of gravity’ will shift inexorably towards Asia over the next 30 years. By 2020, it is estimated that more than half of the world’s middle class will live in Asia, and countries across this region are rapidly increasing the capacity and quality of their education systems. While the projected demand for higher education across Asia will outstrip the supply of places until at least 2025, there will be intense competition from within and outside of Asia for international students. Parents of prospective students will choose universities carefully and often on the university’s standing in world ranking systems or in international disciplinary league tables.

At first glance, Australia looks well positioned as the investment to date in building the global standing of our relatively young ‘university system’ has delivered impressive results. The median age of the country’s universities is just 26 years but in 2012 Australia had 14 universities ranked in the Times Higher Education ‘Top 100 universities under 50’ and 10 ranked in the QS ‘Top 50 universities under 50’. The Excellence in Research Australia 2012 assessment found that there were 1,348 fields of research rated at world standard or above across all Australian universities. This strong performance has been built on two decades of growth in both the volume and quality of research output which has occurred in parallel with an increase in the number of staff with doctoral qualifications – particularly in the younger group of IRU and ATN universities. But there are challenges ahead,  analysis shows that while R&D expenditure grew 2.5 fold in universities in Australia between 1992 and 2008, this appears to be a consequence of an increase in the number of research active staff, rather than an increase in expenditure per researcher1. Thus while research funding has increased, it may be as difficult for researchers to access research funding in the current environment as it was some 20 years ago.  

One of the under-explored implications of the Bradley targets is the potential to further accelerate Australia’s research output. The risk, however, is that the staff recruited now to meet the immediate challenge of the education of the greater number of students in lecture theatres and tutorial rooms, may not be equipped or supported to respond as our counterparts in Asia build powerhouses of research and innovation. Australia’s global competitiveness in 2020 and beyond depends on the skills and talent of the academic cohort we hire today, the environment we create around them and the capacity to leverage engagement with global peers.

Just as a hypothetical, imagine the impact of positioning the future workforce with all nations across Asia, including Australia, through an ‘Asian Research and Innovation Council’ in 2020 to drive programs similar to those that have driven research expansion in the European Union. If Australia is to be able to harness such an opportunity on its regional doorstep then we need to plan to ensure that we remain an attractive destination for outstanding academic staff from across the world and that the brakes are not applied to the further growth of a first rate research and innovation workforce at this critical moment in the Asian Century.

This planning needs to take place alongside the university workforce adapting to rapid changes occurring in modes of course delivery and in technology-enabled learning.  In the past year it appears that an ‘accelerant’ has been added to the mix of global factors that are driving changes in learning and teaching including MOOCs. So should we be ‘spooked by MOOCs’ – or should we be excited about how open educational resources will transform learning worldwide? The 2012 Study of Undergraduate Students and IT by the EDUCAUSE Centre for Applied Research found that two out of every three students considered technology elevates the level of teaching, and that open educational resources and game-based learning were at the top of the list of what students wished their teachers used more.

Supporting students to harness knowledge to understand their world and its past, to solve complex problems to apply to case or clinical studies or as a platform for creativity will always be our core business; and the new technologies may well support a new and more satisfying engagement between student and academic – if we get it right. This will require, however, a workforce that is brave and prepared to experiment. It may be time to evolve our current view of what constitutes the ‘academic’ to a more hybrid model of someone who has creative expertise in the development and implementation of technology-enabled learning coupled with deep disciplinary knowledge.

Finally, one key issue is how to ensure that we recruit the world’s best professional staff in areas such as human resources, marketing, IT, finance, planning, student support and all of the other critical areas that determine the competitive capacity of billion dollar enterprises. How do we ensure that the brightest graduates across the relevant disciplines are recruited into structured career pathway and develop as ‘higher education professionals’?  It is time to take stock of the impact of the future research and education ‘settings’ on the role, performance and career requirements of all – not just half of the workforce in our universities.

At the University of Newcastle we have been working hard to develop our Future Workforce Plan as part of our NeW Directions Strategic Plan 2013-2015. The foundation of our plan is that it is performance at the global level that will ensure the University can deliver the world-class innovation required to build regional and national productivity. It is in this future context that we have committed to a number of innovative strategies designed to build a ‘career advantage’ for all of our staff.  Many universities, including the IRU, are engaging in similar planning exercises suggesting that the time may well be right to work as a sector on shaping what the future university workforce should look like.

In this context the IRU has identified the future university workforce as a priority issue to explore during 2013, stimulating discussion and provoking debate in the lead-up to hosting a National Forum with participation from all stakeholders. We warmly welcome input, support and engagement from across the sector with this Forum which will not be captured by the compelling issues of the present, but rather will address the challenge of this, the next frontier.

Vice-Chancellor, Professor Caroline McMillen


[1] Australian Research: Strategies for Turbulent Times, Barlow Report; Barlow, T. 2011